Religious Women, Don't Hold Your Sisters Back

As much as male opposition to integrating women into key religious roles is annoying, the fact that many women identify with this opposition is far more infuriating.

Religious woman in the Western Wall, Jerusalem, 2013.
Tali Mayer

In some Orthodox synagogues on Simhat Torah, it was possible to see women dancing with Torah scrolls, being called up and reading from the Torah with their daughters, giving sermons, and happy on the holiday as if it was their own (too).

These egalitarian minyans are some of the signs of the feminist revolution occurring in the religious Zionist community in recent years. These are religious people fighting the traditional gender oppression and insisting on doing so within the framework of Orthodox Judaism – because they do not see a contradiction between feminist principles and the fundamental principles of Jewish law.

Yet in the great majority of Orthodox synagogues – including those congregations viewed as liberal and moderate – the mehitza (partition) separated women from the Torah scrolls, which were to be found only in the men’s section during the holiday dancing. So while the men reached out their hands to touch and kiss the holy Torahs, the women made do with blowing kisses in the air.

In some synagogues, a discussion even took place on the question of whether to allow a Torah to be taken into the women’s section for a symbolic turn. As for being called for an aliyah to the Torah, not a single woman thought about that, of course.

True, every family is allowed to choose whether, and in which synagogue, to pray. Egalitarian minyans are not appropriate for everyone, for various reasons. And we must admit, not all women are interested in participating in them. But the discriminatory gender dynamic, which is expressed in the Simhat Torah dancing in most Orthodox synagogues, should concern even those who do not have the urge to be called up for the Torah reading.

The fact that in many places women are still identified with impurity – and therefore the thought of a woman holding a holy Torah arouses near-horror – is outrageous. It’s impossible to justify it with excuses such as tradition and the customs of our ancestors, or by the desire of too many women to avoid angering people or causing a fuss.

This is, of course, a much broader issue than just the composition of the circles of dancers on Simhat Torah. It is a revolution that, even if it is picking up speed, has run into enemies – male and female – at home, and is forced to deal with patriarchal barriers set up by those who have yet to understand that the era in which women stayed home and watched over the food while waiting for their spouses to return home from the synagogue has passed.

These people are unable to accept the fact that some women study Talmud. And they have no problem with the fact that some university Talmud departments have never appointed a woman to an academic post.

As much as male opposition to integrating women into key religious roles is annoying, the fact that many women identify with this opposition is much more infuriating. It’s okay for women to decide they are not interested in giving a sermon in the synagogue, but it is certainly not fine that women make do with just peeking over the partition out of fear of being seen as violating the blessed status quo.

The fact that so many women see the struggle for equality within the framework of what halakha (Jewish religious law) allows as a lack of respect for religion, or as provocative behavior by other women, is saddening and discouraging.

As long as religious women continue to accept the views that sanctify the exclusion of women in the name of custom and tradition, they will damage the attempts of other women to shape a better and more equal reality. Or, in other words: You do not have to be partners in the struggle. But if you are not helping out, at least don’t get in the way.

The writer is a postdoctoral fellow in law at Tel Aviv University.